Shannon Ward is the co-captain of the Charlotte Healing Dragons, a Dragon Boat team dedicated to supporting cancer survivors.
MF: How did you get involved with the Healing Dragons?
SW: Elaine Harris, a friend I grew up with, had breast cancer six years ago. She found out about the group through an organization. I had recently lost 103 pounds and was looking for some way to stay active. Elaine started encouraging me to join the group. We’ve been paddling together ever since.
Dragon Boating has been the focal point of my staying fit and healthy.
MF: Why is it paddling instead of rowing?
SW: Rowing is done with mounted oars and uses a slide that lets the athlete involve the leg muscles more. Paddling is with a free oar focuses more on the upper body and core.
MF: According to the International Breast Cancer Paddler’s Commission there are 197 dragon boat teams in 26 countries dedicated to cancer survivors. What’s the connection?
SW: In 1998, Dr. Don Mckenzie, a professor in the Department of Sports Medicine at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, published a paper Abreast in a Boat about the benefits of dragon boat racing for cancer survivors. Prior to that, many believed that vigorous exercise could cause complications like lymphedema (swelling around the lymph nodes) for breast cancer survivors. Dr. McKenzie’s study looked at the impact of dragon boat racing on a team of cancer survivors that participated in the 1996 Vancouver Dragon Boat Festival, the first one held outside of China. It’s now the fastest growing paddling sport in America and a big part of that has been the cancer survivor paddling clubs.
MF: To be clear, you haven’t had cancer yourself.
SW: That’s correct. Many Healing Dragons members are supporters rather than survivors. In the early days of the club, there was some discussion about whether it should be for breast cancer survivors only, cancer survivors only, all female, etc. We settled on the more inclusive approach. There are now two clubs that practice at Mountain Island Lake. Healing dragons, which is about ⅓ cancer survivors, and more a competition-oriented team called “Organized Chaos. Both teams were started by Randy Crow. We have another sister team, also called Healing Dragons, that practices at Lake James.We have two other sister teams, one also named Healing Dragons, that practices at Lake James, and an LGBT supportive team called One World, that practices at Lake Norman.
MF: How did the Charlotte chapter of the Healing Dragons start?
SW: Randy Crowe, who is now the coach for Organized Chaos, went to a Dragon Boat clinic in Florida about nine years ago and he was paddling at the clinic with a breast cancer survivor team. He came back to Charlotte very excited about the physical and mental health benefits and the energy around it. Charlotte has a number of hospitals and treatment facilities, so it was a natural fit for our region.
MF: So, he went to Florida and brought home a dragon boat?
SW: Actually, it was something like that. His wife and he had been saving money for a kitchen remodel. They bought a dragon boat instead. Enthusiasm built very quickly after that and there were people who wanted to do it year round. Btw, Randy and his wife did eventually remodel their kitchen; it just took a few years longer than planned.
MF: How much is a dragon boat?
SW: A lightly used one in good shape goes for about ten to eleven thousand dollars.
MF: Do the Healing Dragons take their boats with them to festivals?
SW: We only use our boat for practice, as the festivals and races we attend always provide boats. Many of us do have our own paddles, though. The festivals provide paddles and PFDs, but most of us prefer lighter carbon fibre paddles. The carbon fibre paddles typically cost between $130 and $500, but some are even more expensive.The International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) sets the size and shape regulations for dragon boat paddles.
MF: How many races do you participate in each year?
SW: We do six to seven races a year and practice twice a week. Practices are a little under 90 minutes.
The Cary Dragon Boat Festival has been one of our favorites. It’s run like clockwork; it’s a pretty venue; it’s comfortable; the parking’s good; they have real bathrooms instead of Porta Potties. It’s a very moving event with dancers, singers, and lots of beautiful things going on in addition to the races.
On top of that, there’s Lilly Chan out there greeting every boat, welcoming everyone, and encouraging all the teams. She’s like a force of nature.
MF: So, you’ve participated in more than 25 races yourself? What have been some of the highlights?
SW: My first race was at the Charlotte Asian Festival in 2013. I remember sitting on the water and feeling so exhilarated. I’d never done anything like this before. One of the first teams we raced against was a corporate team and they all looked like Navy Seals.
That season we medaled in every race. The fourth race of that season was our first time in Cary and it was a very special memory: we came from behind to medal in a photo finish. I still have the medal; it rides around in my car with me, because it felt like the one we worked the hardest for, and the one for which we beat the toughest team: 19 men and one woman in the other boat!
MF: What surprised you about Dragon Boat racing?
SW: I thought it was going to be easier than its. It’s really hard to paddle with the correct form when using your core. It’s really rigorous. How do I put this? By the end of the season, I’m in love with my shoulder muscles.
MF: You mentioned the Navy Seal-looking boat that first race. It sounds like the Healing Dragons has become competitive with some of them since.
SW: We learned that when we train hard, we get better. A boat might be made up of very good athletes, but if they aren’t training with a club, they tend to “arm it.” Their upper body strength can give them an edge in a short race. In a race of 300 meters or more, our stamina and practiced form gives us an edge and we often come from behind to win in races at community events. Even if the other team is more experienced, we paddle ever race like we are going to bring home the gold!
On the boat, you have to be supportive of the people around you. Everyone has to be in it together and the team that’s in synch and together usually wins. I even have a sticker on my paddle that says “Synch or Sink.”
MF: Are there any special considerations for a boat that includes breast cancer survivors?
SW: Some survivors can only paddle one side or the other. We had a woman last year who was in the middle of chemo. She paddled with us three times, but mostly she just rode around on the boat. She got a lot of support and advice from teammates who helped her to sort out the questions she needed to ask her doctors.
MF: I take it that it’s not just about the paddling.
SW: So many survivors are tenacious, go-getting people. They’re role models for me, because they’re so good at trusting themselves. I’ve been inspired by watching them help others who were recently diagnosed. The club is a safe place for survivors and non-survivors alike to talk about therapies, emotional issues, and finding support.
The group rallies around one another. We celebrate anniversaries of being cancer free and send cards to one another. Last year when one of our members passed, a bunch of people from the team wore their team shirts and took their paddles to the funeral.
MF: They’re must be some great stories.
SW: There was one member who kept going to the doctor, because she said she didn’t feel right. It took two-and-a-half years before doctors found the malignancy, which they estimated had been going on for about that long. We hear that story over and over and how women have to be brave enough to trust themselves.
MF: What’s the age range of the Healing Dragons?
SW: The youngest is 28 and the oldest was 80. My 15 year old daughter has practiced with us. This year, the oldest is in her seventies. Our coach is in her sixties. A lot of the members are also active in tennis, yoga, and cycling, but many have never done a team sport before.
MF: You mentioned that you lost more than a hundred pounds prior to taking up dragon boat racing.
SW: A woman at our kids’ school had breast cancer and we were invited to a fund raiser. There was a raffle and we happened to win two things: a gift card for a Greek bakery and a one month membership to a gym with a trainer included.
My husband had a stint in. We were looking for a place to exercise. We decided that it was better to give the money to the gym, than to doctors.
MF: You obviously weren’t the first people to go to a gym to lose weight.
SW: My trainer wanted me to set a weight loss goal; I was over 300 pounds at the time. Finally, I committed to weigh less at the end of the year. I lost 90 pounds in my first year and my husband lost 50. I lost 40 more pounds the second year. I knew that people who take weight off needed to find ways to keep it off. Elaine kept pushing me to try dragon boating. She told me, “You get out of the car and look for the lady with the purple visor. You’re not going home until you get on the boat.”
I look on that as a life-saving moment for me. I quickly discovered my inner-competitive nature; I didn’t want to be the weak link on the boat.
MF: That’s a great story!
SW: I love the fact that people come to the Healing Dragons who have never been athletes, who can be embraced by this community and find a way to love being fit. After bad gym experiences as kids, they often discover that they can be athletes.
I never feel as lucky as when we’re out on the boat, the sun’s out, the water’s calm, and you’re with your team. A breeze comes across the lake, it’s all like the biggest blessing in the whole world. The positivity of the survivors is incredibly infectious. We’re all out there together working to be healthy, to keep each other healthy and strong.